The Illegitimacy of Violence, the Violence of Legitimacy
What is violence? Who gets to define it? Does it have a place in the pursuit of liberation? These age-old questions have returned to the fore during the Occupy movement. But this discussion never takes place on a level playing field; while some delegitimize violence, the language of legitimacy itself paves the way for the authorities to employ it.
- “Though lines of police on horses, and with dogs, charged the main street outside the police station to push rioters back, there were significant pockets of violence which they could not reach.” –The New York Times, on the UK riots of August 2011
During the 2001 FTAA summit in Quebec City, one newspaper famously reported that violence erupted when protesters began throwing tear gas canisters back at the lines of riot police. When the authorities are perceived to have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, “violence” is often used to denote illegitimate use of force—anything that interrupts or escapes their control. This makes the term something of a floating signifier, since it is also understood to mean “harm or threat that violates consent.”
This is further complicated by the ways our society is based on and permeated by harm or threat that violates consent. In this sense, isn’t it violent to live on colonized territory, destroying ecosystems through our daily consumption and benefitting from economic relations that are forced on others at gunpoint? Isn’t it violent for armed guards to keep food and land, once a commons shared by all, from those who need them? Is it more violent to resist the police who evict people from their homes, or to stand aside while people are made homeless? Is it more violent to throw tear gas canisters back at police, or to denounce those who throw them back as “violent,” giving police a free hand to do worse?
In this state of affairs, there is no such thing as nonviolence—the closest we can hope to come is to negate the harm or threat posed by the proponents of top-down violence. And when so many people are invested in the privileges this violence affords them, it’s naïve to think that we could defend ourselves and others among the dispossessed without violating the wishes of at least a few bankers and landlords. So instead of asking whether an action is violent, we might do better to ask simply: does it counteract power disparities, or reinforce them?
This is the fundamental anarchist question. We can ask it in every situation; every further question about values, tactics, and strategy proceeds from it. When the question can be framed thus, why would anyone want to drag the debate back to the dichotomy of violence and nonviolence?
The discourse of violence and nonviolence is attractive above all because it offers an easy way to claim the higher moral ground. This makes it seductive both for criticizing the state and for competing against other activists for influence. But in a hierarchical society, gaining the higher ground often reinforces hierarchy itself.
Legitimacy is one of the currencies that are unequally distributed in our society, through which its disparities are maintained. Defining people or actions as violent is a way of excluding them from legitimate discourse, of silencing and shutting out. This parallels and reinforces other forms of marginalization: a wealthy white person can act “nonviolently” in ways that would be seen as violent were a poor person of color to do the same thing. In an unequal society, the defining of “violence” is no more neutral than any other tool.
Defining people or actions as violent also has immediate consequences: it justifies the use of force against them. This has been an essential step in practically every campaign targeting communities of color, protest movements, and others on the wrong side of capitalism. If you’ve attended enough mobilizations, you know that it’s often possible to anticipate exactly how much violence the police will use against a demonstration by the way the story is presented on the news the night before. In this regard, pundits and even rival organizers can participate in policing alongside the police, determining who is a legitimate target by the way they frame the narrative.
On the one-year anniversary of the Egyptian uprising, the military lifted the Emergency Laws—“except in thug-related cases.” The popular upheaval of 2011 had forced the authorities to legitimize previously unacceptable forms of resistance, with Obama characterizing as “nonviolent” an uprising in which thousands had fought police and burned down police stations. In order to re-legitimize the legal apparatus of the dictatorship, it was necessary to create a new distinction between violent “thugs” and the rest of the population. Yet the substance of this distinction was never spelled out; in practice, “thug” is simply the word for a person targeted by the Emergency Laws. From the perspective of the authorities, ideally the infliction of violence itself would suffice to brand its victims as violent—i.e., as legitimate targets.
So when a broad enough part of the population engages in resistance, the authorities have to redefine it as nonviolent, even if it would previously have been considered violent. Otherwise, the dichotomy between violence and legitimacy might erode—and without that dichotomy, it would be much harder to justify the use of force against those who threaten the status quo. By the same token, the more ground we cede in what we permit the authorities to define as violent, the more they will sweep into that category, and the greater risk all of us will face. One consequence of the past several decades of self-described nonviolent civil disobedience is that some people regard merely raising one’s voice as violent; this makes it possible to portray those who take even the most tentative steps to protect themselves against police violence as violent thugs.
- “The individuals who linked arms and actively resisted, that in itself is an act of violence… linking arms in a human chain when ordered to step aside is not a nonviolent protest.” -UC police captain Margo Bennett, quoted in The San Francisco Chronicle, justifying the use of force against students at the University of California at Berkeley
Eight Simple Steps Towards Revolution
Once again, please forward this and print out copies to distribute in your community!
• Eight Simple Steps [print version, 496 KB]
A two-sided flier to be folded down the middle, longways.
Cast a spell. People in North America are already under a spell: the spell of private property, of the legitimacy of government, of hopelessness. None of these are inherently real; they derive their reality from our collective belief and activity. You have to be hypnotized indeed to believe that property is more sacred than the needs of human beings—that the decisions of the government are more legitimate than your own judgment.
To break this spell, cast another. When a few people invest themselves entirely in another vision of reality, they open up space for others to invest in it as well. It doesn’t have to be realistic at first—it just has to spread until it creates the conditions of its possibility. The original call to occupy Wall Street on September 17 was an example of such a spell. What could take us further?
Find each other. Facebook and Twitter notwithstanding, we’re more isolated today than ever. There is a fundamental difference between merely circulating information and making connections that enable people to act together. In an era when social networks are effectively mapped and contained, it’s subversive to make these connections beyond your usual social milieu; some of your friends may not have much fight in them after all, while others with goals complementary to yours might be very different from you. You can’t expect other people to leave their comfort zones unless you’re prepared to leave your own.
Together we can do anything. Preparing a revolution isn’t a matter of a radical minority building up the skills and resources to change the world; when enough of us get together, we have access to the knowledge and resources of our whole society. It’s not our job to orchestrate every aspect of the struggle, nor could we; we just have to create conduits through which subversive practices and momentum can flow. Preparation could go on endlessly, as the world goes on changing—circulation is what counts.
The secret is to really begin. Until there’s something new happening, something that interrupts the status quo, there’s no reason for anyone to pay attention. It’s not enough to try to start a dialogue in a vacuum; for people to take the dialogue seriously, there has to be something to talk about. Don’t just chant that another world is possible; manifest it, so everyone who might believe in it can. Don’t just talk about abolishing capitalism; pick a pressure point, have a go at it, and see who joins in.
Build the will. Nowadays most of us don’t know our own strength. We’re not used to relying on our own capabilities; we assume we can always be defeated. Most of the strength of those who hold power is founded on this defeatism. But a little courage can be infectious, and once people get used to wielding power together they won’t quickly give it up.
The first compromise is the last one. Over and over, our occupations and movements are undermined one compromise at a time. Whenever we concede anything, we set a precedent that will be repeated again and again, emboldening those for whom it is more convenient for us to remain passive. If police don’t arrest us when we stand up for ourselves, it isn’t because they support us, or because we’re within our legal rights—it’s because we’ve mobilized enough social power to make them back down. Timidity, placation, and obedience only detract from this leverage.
Address the 99%, not the 1%. Demands oriented towards those in power direct the focus away from what we can do ourselves; joint action, on the other hand, empowers us and creates a space where we can weave our differences into collective strength. To put this in the language of the Occupy movement, why address demands to the 1% at the top of the capitalist pyramid, who will never share our priorities? Why not instead address proposals to the rest of the 99%, whose combined power could render the authority of the 1% meaningless?
We’ve been taught by a thousand classes, newspapers, and job interviews to present everything in the language and logic of our superiors. We must finally learn to speak each other’s languages, to make proposals that are relevant to our own needs rather than “realistic” in the framework of our rulers. This means dispensing with every conception of legitimacy we inherited from the prevailing order—not just the authority of the politicians and the courts, but also academic prestige and middle-class “common sense” and activist credentials—in favor of value systems that legitimize our voices and our resistance on our own terms.
Aim beyond the target. Often, to accomplish small concrete objectives, we have to set our sites much higher. Conversely, it sometimes happens that we accomplish what we set out to easily enough, but have no idea what to do with the new opportunities that open up next. Every time we act, let’s act in a way that points towards the world we want and equips us to go on moving towards it. The most important thing is not whether we achieve our immediate goals, but how each engagement positions us for the next round.